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The Road to Nobel Fame: The Face of Research in Germany

By Ute Zauft

Bearing the names of some of Germany's greatest scholars - Helmholtz, Max Planck, Fraunhofer and Leibniz - the four largest scientific organisations in Germany are named after men famous for their indomitable commitment to research. It is at research institutes run by these four scientific communities that cutting edge research to rival the work of universities is being carried out. In this article we take a look at the new opportunities for researchers in Germany with their sights set on a coveted Nobel Prize.

Auf dem Weg zum Nobelpreis© Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com
Good career prospects are what lured Ulrich Husemann back to Germany from the prestigious Yale University in America. That and a very large machine. Husemann is a physicist who uses particle accelerators to carry out research into what happens when protons collide. Based in Germany, the 34-year old scientist works with the largest particle accelerator in the world: the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.

More specifically, it was the Helmholtz Association which brought the young scientist back to Germany from his postdoctoral position in the USA. With an annual budget of some €2.8 billion Helmholtz is the largest scientific organisation in Germany. Its 16 research centres house large-scale devices, such as particle accelerators, which are invaluable to scientific and technical research and the infrastructure necessary for bio-medical research. The German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, for example, was where Nobel Prize-winning scientist Harald zur Hausen formulated the basis for the new vaccination against cervical cancer.

Helmholtz: independent research into new technologies

After returning from the USA, Husemann headed up a junior research group. "At a relatively young age I have found a job with a number of advantages. I get to work independently, I have financial resources to fund my research and I can employ my own staff", explains Husemann. He was offered an annual research budget of €250,000 over five years. What makes working at Helmholtz such an attractive proposition for young researchers like Husemann is the prospect of a permanent, tenured position. As a tenure track researcher, Husemann's work will be evaluated in three or four years and a decision made to offer him a permanent position at the research centre.

Max Planck: From basic research to junior professorships

Biologist Lawrence Rajendran speaks quickly, laughs a lot and has recently been made junior professor in cell biology. "What started out as a two-month stay in Germany has turned into eight years", jokes the 34-year old from India. Listening to him speak it is obvious that his prolonged stay was by no means against his will. The most important stage on his route to a professorship in Zurich, Switzerland, was without doubt his post-doctoral position at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden. For five years he conducted research into how human cells change as a result of Alzheimer's disease.

The Max Planck Institute in Dresden is one of 76 institutes that make up the Max Planck Society (MPG) in Germany. The Max Planck Society performs basic research, i.e., scientific research where the emphasis is not on short-term results but rather where long-term commitment and stable finances are needed. Bio-medical research such as that carried out by Lawrence Rajendran is the most important focus area for the Max Planck Society, although it is also involved in research in the natural and social sciences. On top of this, the Max Planck Society is firmly committed to internationalisation, with approximately half of all those attending Max Planck Research Schools coming from abroad.

A good environment for long-term research

After receiving his doctorate at the University of Konstanz, Lawrence Rajendran applied to the Max Planck Institute in Dresden. It was the reputation of the person who would later become his boss that prompted this decision. "Dresden has succeeded in attracting very good people from all over the world, and you can meet them, talk openly with them and get suggestions and ideas", explains Rajendran who raves about the infrastructure at Max Planck Institutes, the flat hierarchy and about the colleagues. This excellent reputation is certainly one of the reasons why 17 of the German Nobel Prize winners are from the Max Planck Society.

Leibniz: Universal knowledge distributed across many institutes

The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who died in 1716 was the last truly universal scholar of his time. A lawyer, natural scientist, historian and theologian, his spirit lives on in the 86 research institutes which bear his name as part of the Leibniz Association. The research carried out at these institutes ranges from economics and the social sciences to natural sciences, engineering and environmental sciences.

Forging links between universities and research institutes

For Berlin sociologist Kathrin Leuze it is important to build a bridge between non-university research and teaching at universities. In April of this year, the 33-year old found the perfect job in Berlin. She is a junior professor for educational sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin and, at the same time, heads up a project group at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB). The WZB in Berlin is one of roughly 30 Leibniz research institutes which are not engaged in natural science research. But the dual structure of Leuze's work is not unusual for Leibniz researchers. The directors at the Association's institutes are usually professors at technical universities. "I have excellent opportunities to carry out research while, at the same time, maintaining links with university life. In fact, maintaining contact with students is very important for me", explains Leuze.

The organisation of Leibniz institutes is relatively decentralised and each institute is responsible for its own research area while, at the same time, ensuring that issues which are of relevance to the Association are addressed. Institutes need to focus both on basic research as well as on applied research. The Social Science Research Center in Berlin, for example, carries out long-term research but also provides policy advice in relation to current employment market issues. "For me it is important to reach the general public with a problem-orientated research approach", says Kathrin Leuze.

Fraunhofer: Applied research

Dieter Rombach is a university professor, director of a Fraunhofer institute and, in some respects, even an entrepreneur. The Fraunhofer Society is the largest research establishment for engineering in Germany and is specifically focussed on practical research applications. In reality this means that Fraunhofer sells its research, and some 90% of its research budget comes from research contracts carried out on behalf of industry and the state.

Rombach's business card is printed on both sides to indicate his affiliation with both the Kaiserslautern University of Technology and the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering (IESE). As a person too, Rombach seems to radiate a fluidity which sees him move comfortably between the worlds of science and business. "Anyone who wants to guide their ideas from discovery to the marketplace will be right at home here", he explains. The doctoral students at his institute are scientists who also work for industry and who stay in close contact with the client companies. Rombach explains that this close link between research and industry is of tremendous benefit. "Where else would you be able to have the option of going on to become a professor or working in industry?" he asks. He estimates that around 20% of staff remain with Fraunhofer on a long-term basis while 60-65% go on to work in industry and 10-15% pursue careers in academia.

The research landscape for non-university research in Germany is recognised both nationally and internationally and positions are naturally highly coveted by young researchers. Once there, many different paths are open to them, some even leading to a Nobel Prize.

academics :: July 2009